Chester Gillette Trial: 1906

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Chester Gillette Trial: 1906

Defendant: Chester Ellsworth Gillette
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Albert M. Mills and Charles D. Thomas
Chief Prosecutor: George W. Ward
Judge: Irving R. Devendorf
Place: Herkimer, New York
Dates of Trial: November 12-December 4, 1906
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by electrocution

SIGNIFICANCE: The sordid murder of a secretary by her social-climbing boss received its share of press attention at the time but would be long since forgotten had it not provided Theodore Dreiser with the inspiration, the characters and the plot of arguably the greatest novel of the literary movement known as "naturalism": An American Tragedy.

Chester Ellsworth Gillette was born in 1884 to a well-to-do Christian family. His youth gave no inclination that he would become one of the most famous murderers of his time. As a child, Gillette did missionary work for the Salvation Army. He went to prestigious Oberlin College, which was well-known for its divinity school and missionary work in China. After Oberlin, Gillette went to work for a wealthy uncle who owned a dress factory in Cortland, a town located in upstate New York not far from Syracuse.

Gillette rose steadily in his uncle's business and soon became the factory manager. The local business community accepted Gillette as an up-and-coming young man. Gillette developed social ambitions as well. He was good looking and charming, and he mingled easily with the local gentry. Soon Gillette was a regular at the parties and other functions of Cortland society.

Still in his early 20s, Gillette had high hopes of marrying a girl from one of the town's wealthy families. There was an obstacle to Gillette's plans, however. Grace Brown, nicknamed "Billie," had left her parents' farm in South Otselic, New York, for Cortland and a clerical job at Gillette's factory. Gillette had an affair with her, and in 1906 she became pregnant. If he were to marry Brown, it would ruin Gillette's ambitions as a social climber.

One of the characteristics of the criminal mentality is that when faced with a difficult personal situation, a criminal will go beyond the boundaries of normal behavior and use violence to resolve the problem. Gillette was such a man. In July 1906, he went on vacation, taking Brown with him to a hotel on the shores of Big Moose Lake outside the little town of Herkimer, New York, roughly 60 miles from Cortland. Grace Brown never returned from this vacation.

Tragedy at Big Moose Lake

On the morning of July 11, Gillette took Brown out in a rowboat. As was reconstructed later, Gillette rowed Brown around the lake for a while, then when they were out of sight, he hit her with a tennis racquet and threw her into the lake. Whether the blows killed her instantly or she died of drowning was never made clear. At any rate, after returning to shore, Gillette buried the racquet along the shore and left for another hotel. Gillette checked in at the nearby Arrowhead Inn and later asked the desk clerk whether there had been a drowning reported at Big Moose Lake. When Brown's body was found in the lake shortly thereafter, the police quickly tracked down Gillette.

Gillette claimed that Brown committed suicide by jumping in the water after he started to talk with her about the baby. However, Gillette's behavior didn't betray grief or sorrow. Further, someone discovered the tennis racquet Gillette had buried, broken as if from striking hard blows. The police arrested Gillette, charged him with Brown's murder, and kept him in the Herkimer County jail pending his trial. The press, always eager for a juicy society scandal, made him famous. From his cell, Gillette sold pictures of himself and used the proceeds to have hotel caterers deliver meals to his cell.

On November 12, 1906, Gillette's trial began. The prosecutor was District Attorney George W. Ward, with Judge Irving R. Devendorf presiding. Gillette's defense lawyers were Albert M. Mills and Charles D. Thomas.

Chester Gillette: Murderer or Coward?

Mills and Thomas knew that the evidence of Gillette's guilt was highly persuasive. He had been on the boat with Brown, left the scene under highly suspicious circumstances, and had the stigma of having gotten Brown pregnant but having not married her. However, they believed they could make a reasonable defense, based on Gillette's story that the boat had capsized after Brown jumped in the lake. According to Gillette, after the boat tipped over, he fell into the water. He came up but could not find Brown. Could it be that he had panicked and fled? This would indicate poor judgment, in that day tantamount to cowardice. But poor judgment and cowardice are not murder.

Thomas made the defense's pitch to the jury:

Now gentlemen, there are such things as moral cowards. There are men so constituted that in the presence of a great calamity they must loose themselves, and this boy, in my opinion, in that condition, wandered to the Arrowhead and registered under his own name. He didn't try to run away. He didn't try to conceal himself at all.

Thomas then called Gillette to the stand, and asked him about the critical events immediately following what Gillette said was Brown's decision to kill herself. The following is an excerpt from Thomas' questioning of his client:

Gillette: Then she said, 'Well, I will end it here,' and she, well, jumped into the lake; stepped up onto the boat, kind of threw herself in.

Thomas: What did you do?

Gillette: I tried to reach her, I leaned back in the seat in the other end, the bow seat, I guess. I tried to reach her and, well, I was not quick enough. I went into the lake, too. The boat tipped over as I started to get up. The boat went right over then. Of course, I went into the lake.

Thomas: Go on and describe what you did.

Gillette: Then I came up. I halloed, grabbed hold of the boat. Then, as soon as I could get the water out of my eyes and see, I got hold of the boat or got to the boat.

Thomas: Did you see her?

Gillette: No, I stayed there at the boat but a minute or two. It seemed like a long time, anyway, and I didn't see her. Then I swam to shore.

District Attorney Ward, knowing the thinness of the defense's argument, pressed home his attack. Not only could the defense not explain the tennis racquet, but Ward had five doctors to testify that Brow's autopsy showed evidence of blows to the body. Further, Gillette later seemed to change his story, suggesting that the boat had tipped over first and Brown had hit her head against the side before sinking beneath the lake. This sounded like an attempt to explain away the results of the autopsy. Ward said of the defense:

When the learned counsel made this address to you in a despairing effort to withdraw from the clutches of the law a man whom he knows and whom I know and whom you all know that this evidence condemns beyond all question, when he stands up here and says that five of these doctors, men who enter your houses day after day and have your lives and the lives of your families in their hands, are perjurers and wanton liars, it ought not to be necessary to make an argument against such a statement as that.

Ward Finishes his Closing Argument

But why had Gillette been so inept in covering his tracks? If Gillette had planned Brown's murder, why hadn't he disposed of the tennis racquet better or otherwise killed her in a less suspicious manner? After all, it had taken practically no time for the police to arrest Gillette. Ward pointed out that the arrogance of murderers is often beyond the pale of ordinary human reason:

He is bloodthirsty and brutal. He is a blunderer. He does not reason on the lines that any one of us do. He reasons on different lines. Everything looks red before him. There is nothing but one object that he is going to grasp, and that is his personal safety, his personal well-being, the possibility of an arrest. He sees nothing else. He cares for nothing else. He casts all these things behind him and says "I can do this slyly. I can get the girl on the bottom of the lake. I can do it secretly. I can do it carefully. I stand well in Cortland. I go to church. They think I am a paragon of virtue, a decent man, when in reality I am a ravisher. What I do in secret will be unknown. I can take her out there and leave her body in the lake."

On December 4, 1906, after deliberating for only a couple of hours, the jury announced its verdict: guilty. Judge Devendorf prepared to sentence Gillette to death, as prescribed by New York law. But before he pronounced sentence, the judge asked Gillette if he had anything to say. Gillette replied:

I have. I desire to state that I am innocent of this crime and therefore ought not to be punished. I think that is all.

Judge Devendorf then sentenced Gillette to die in the electric chair. Following Gillette's trial and sentence, his execution was delayed while Mills and Thomas appealed. They based their appeals on a lengthy list of objections that they had made at trial and a trial record that was more than 3,000 thousand pages long. On February 18, 1908, the New York Court of Appeals rejected Mills' and Thomas' arguments. Chief Judge Frank A. Hiscock's opinion was terse and unequivocal:

No controversy throws the shadow of doubt or speculation over the primary fact that about 6 o'clock in the afternoon of July 11, 1906, while she was with the defendant, Grace Brown met an unnatural death and her body sank to the bottom of Big Moose Lake.

With the legal appeals finally at an end, Gillette went to the electric chair on March 30, 1908.

Gillette's story lingered in the memory of a young muckraking novelist. In An American Tragedy, a novel whose plot and principal characters were closely modeled on the events and figures in the case, Theodore Dreiser resurrected Gillette as the embodiment and culmination of the money-grubbing and social climbing that Dreiser believed had corrupted the nation's moral values. The novel's critical and commercial success ensured that the sordid murderer became one of the archetypal and tragic villains in American literature.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Brown, Grace. Grace Brown's Love Letters. Herkimer, N.Y.: Citizen Pub. Co., 1906.

Brownell, Joseph W. Adirondack Tragedy. Interlaken, N.Y.: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1986.

Dreiser, Theodore. An American Tragedy. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1925.